The Ummah and the nation-state

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Shafaqna Pakistan: Contrary to the expectations of many Pakistanis, leaders of the Ummah have not come galloping on their Arabian horses, brandishing shining crescent swords, to help us in our Kashmir cause.

We may take our Nasim Hijazis, Zaid Hamids and PTV soap operas as seriously as we like, the world is a very different place from the paradise that we have created in our imagination.

Interestingly, the reality check of the season was articulated by a person who can otherwise help us get to the real paradise, on some terms and conditions of course – Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi, custodian of the holy shrines of Bahauddin Zakaria and Rukn-e-Alam, doubling as the foreign minister of Pakistan.

Qureshi’s own ancestor, Shah Kamal-ud-Din Ali Shah Qureshi, had migrated to Multan from Mecca centuries ago and Multanis have taken excellent care of the saintly family ever since.

This is what Makhdoom Sahib had to tell us: “You (people) should not live in fool’s paradise. Nobody will be standing there (in the UNSC) with garlands in hands”…the “guardians of Ummah (Islamic community) might also not back Pakistan on the Kashmir issue due to their economic interests…Different people in the world have their own interests. India is a market of (over) billion people…A lot of people have invested there (India). We often talk about Ummah and Islam but the guardians of Ummah have also made investments there (India) and they have their own interests.”

With one bitter, and thoroughly undiplomatic, statement, Shah Mahmood has evicted us from the paradise that we had crated so meticulously with no small help from our ruling elite. Some four decades ago, when a woman MPA said Happy New Year to his father, Makhdoom Sajjad Hussain Qureshi, governor Punjab in Zia’s regime, he had coldly responded, “Our calendar starts in Moharram.” He was a Meccan after all. Now we must go back to the calendar that starts on January 1 and ends on December 31.

The never-ending great Ummah debate is raging in the Pakistani media once again – if it had ever stopped at all. Most people are venting Qureshi’s type of frustration on the behaviour of Muslim rulers. Others have predictably questioned the very existence of a community called the Ummah. We remain as confused as we always were on the relationship between two very different kinds of communities – the community of faith and the nation-state.

Religion bestows a sense of identity upon its followers. Those who follow a religion form a moral community. It is a strong bond that unites people in culture, heritage and rituals even when faith is very weak or totally absent. Though religious ideology and identity affect politics even in the most developed countries, a moral community is not a political community per se. It only catalyses politics within nation-states and between nation-states.

The nation-state is the most possessive, most jealous of all political communities that have ever existed in human history. It is jealous of religion too, because religion enjoys a powerful hold over its followers and it can make competing claims over citizens’ loyalties. Nation-states, therefore, have sought either to suppress religion or harness its power for their own objectives.

Every nation-state, without any exception, uses the power of ancient symbols of religion to create an emotional bond between the state and citizens. These symbols include flags, anthems, mausoleums and towers. Scratch the surface and you will see that even the most religious nation-state uses religion to achieve its national agenda.

In many ways, the modern world resembles the stateless tribal societies where loyalties and institutional mechanisms beyond the tribes were almost non-existent. In today’s world, loyalties beyond the nation-states are fickle and floating. They can change with national interests.

Many Pakistanis believe that a supranational political entity exists in the form of the Ummah and if it does not exist, it can be created by reincarnating some sort of Caliphate. Those who take this line also appear to believe that Pakistan or some Pakistani – preferably they themselves – should have the leadership role in such an arrangement.

This confusion has a long history. Religious and national identity overlapped in pre-Partition days which was articulated through the Ideology of Pakistan. However, even Iqbal pleaded for a geographical nation-state in his Allahabad address, not a religious super-state or an Ottoman-style millat system naively idealized by Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind. His case for Pakistan is based as much on denial of an Indian national identity as it is based on a unique Muslim identity.

“India is a continent of human groups belonging to different races, speaking different languages, and professing different religions […] Personally, I would like to see the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sindh and Balochistan amalgamated into a single State. Self-government within the British Empire, or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim State appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of North-West India.”

Pakistan is one of 47 Muslim majority states with their own languages, cultures, geographies and above all national interests. There is a huge goodwill among people of these countries based on shared history and religion. For example, the relationship between Turkey and Pakistan is rooted in a unique bond of history. Similarly, relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have a long history, of which the Qureshi family is just one example.

Pakistan has been a net-beneficiary of its relationship with the Muslim world. The Arab world in particular has supported Pakistan generously through thick and thin. They have accommodated millions of Pakistani workers without whose remittances our economy may get into serious trouble. However, they cannot do what we ourselves are supposed to do. They could not have stopped us from creating the mess that we are in.

While we have opted to linger in the cold-war era mindset, the world has moved on. This is a new post-ideology world where economy and economic interests trump everything else. How this new world looks like is clear from a speech by Prince Mohammed Bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh. He said his “war” was aimed at restoring the Middle East to its past glory. “I believe the new Europe is the Middle East… The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in five years will be completely different.” Saudi Arabia had already taken “very big steps” to develop its own economy.

The crown prince is driving Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan for economic and social reforms. Unfortunately, India fits in this Saudi vision as a fast developing economy with a huge market while Pakistan does not. With Pakistan at war with itself, it is hard to imagine that this situation can change any time soon. Much will depend largely on how much weight Pakistan can carry in future, based on its economy. For the moment, we can enjoy lectures on history from our prime minister. There may or may not be an Ummah, we have a caliph after all.

Zaigham Abbas